I get lost in New Jersey.
I shouldn’t, because I’m from here — specifically North Jersey, to go by the colloquialism that splits us into two main regions, mine associated with New York, and a southern counterpart allied with Philadelphia, plus a hotly contested central zone that may or may not exist.
But here, already, you’ve stumbled into the nebulous geography that clouds this entire part of the country, making it easy to get turned around. From the sunken Meadowlands outside my hometown of South Orange, to the untamed coastal plain known as the Pine Barrens (or, more ominously, just the Pines), to the cold, haunted streets of Atlantic City and the vast ambiguity of sand we simplify as “the Shore,” things are hazy, gray, porous and tangled. It is the most densely populated state in the nation, though sometimes you’d swear you’re the only one here.
These were the thoughts invading my head on a characteristically cold, wet, Jersey November Sunday as I drove my parents’ car to nearby Secaucus — needing the aid of Google Maps, because, again, I cannot trust my sense of direction in the place where I grew up. I was headed to the Meadowlands Exposition Center for SopranosCon, the most significant gathering for fans of The Sopranos since the crime drama debuted on HBO just over 20 years ago. Three of those fans (Dan Trader, Joe Fama and Michael Mota) were the co-founders of the event; I first learned of it from Trader’s Instagram account, Time Immemorial, where he posts Sopranos memes.
Having watched the entire series, in and out of order, a good dozen times, I’m naturally drawn to content like Trader’s, and to related fan communities like Facebook’s Sopranos Duckposting, where the soul of the richly layered show is preserved and remixed in 2019-friendly formats.
Excited as I was for the what lay inside the expo building — my VIP “Capo” status, at $150, promised a few choice perks — I had my doubts as to what I would find. The organizers were the first to admit they’d never attempted something like this before. My previous con experience had been limited to a hurried walk-through of New York Comic Con a few years back, which I recalled as a smelly, agoraphobic nightmare. And the combination of high ticket prices, mafia overtones and an unprecedented ensemble cast reunion (55 actors were to appear, including principals and bit players) hinted at the chance of grift or sheer disaster: In the back of my mind were notorious implosions like 2014’s Dashcon, which gave us the saddest, most expensive ball pit in history, and Fyre Fest, a luxury concert getaway in the Bahamas that fell apart before it began, its mastermind eventually sentenced to six years in prison for fraud.
But SopranosCon was, by almost any measure, a glorious, unexpected triumph.
Messy and confusing at times, the schedule was unreliable, and you could tell where an element of the massive hall was held together with spit and glue. Often this added to the charm, as if some crooked contractor had embezzled the money for materials. (Not that I’m accusing anyone. The guys who staged the event together wrote, in a defensive Monday morning email addressing various attendees’ complaints, that “people are delusional to think that we made money on this event,” and I’m inclined to agree.)
There were the awkward concessions to fan conference culture overall, a phenomenon that skews more sci-fi and fantasy; I suppose no con is complete without booths of Baby Groot Funko Pops, Star Wars Blu-rays and Hot Topic-style art prints of Jack Skellington. By and large, however, you were struck by a surreal and overwhelming sense of recognition. For a devotee of the series, it wasn’t like being in a room of crappy merch tailored to your interests — it was that, too, I just mean that you also felt at home, the way I do after a long day, when all I can do is sink once more into the world of The Sopranos, a world that is the fictional yet intimately conscious version of the neighborhoods of my youth. Federico Castelluccio, who played the ruthless but romantic soldier Furio Giunta, and who moved to Paterson, New Jersey, from Naples, Italy, with his family at age 3, said it well when he saw the exhibitions: “I almost teared up when I walked in. I got so nostalgic. We’re in Sopranos-land, man.”
Through all the incredible stuff I got to enjoy — drinks at the Bada Bing, the Pine Barrens maze, a photo-op with Pie-O-My, a cannoli-eating contest where the winner had fully unzipped his track jacket to better devour 14 of the decadent treats, a costume contest in which someone tried to sell his Tony Soprano getup by eating slices of prosciutto onstage, Alabama 3 playing “Woke Up This Morning,” the tattoo booth where a dude was getting an image of Tony smoking a cigar in the pool inked on his calf, Bobby Baccalieri’s true-to-scene model train display, even a mock-up of the Scrabble game that saw Jackie Jr. play the word “ass” — that warm familiarity was a constant. This was, I’m sure, an extension of the thrill Jersey people have at seeing a bridge or storefront in an episode and knowing they’ve personally driven across or past it.
Because The Sopranos is, in the zoomed-out view, a story about different modes of family, that connection is also hereditary. In a few somber moments, SopranosCon doubled as an opportunity to grieve James Gandolfini, a man routinely referenced as a peerless and deeply generous actor, one who led his ensemble with an uncomplicated warmth that always eluded his mob boss alter-ego. As a behind-the-scenes patriarch, the cast said, he embraced them all.
Jimmy, as most called him, was not the only notable absence that weekend. A memorial wall honored the couple dozen cast members who have passed away. Of the living, many who played popular and major characters were no-shows: Edie Falco (Carmela Soprano), Jamie-Lynn Sigler (Meadow Soprano), Robert Iler (A.J. Soprano), Michael Imperioli (Christopher Moltisanti) and Lorraine Bracco (Dr. Jennifer Melfi) were the missing marquee names, while Maureen Van Zandt (Gabriella Dante) attended without her real-life and on-screen husband Steven Van Zandt (Silvio Dante), a Jersey icon twice over thanks to his career in Springsteen’s E Street Band. The biggest draws were Adriana La Cerva (Drea de Matteo), Dominic Chianese (Corrado “Junior” Soprano) and Tony Sirico (Paulie Walnuts), and Sirico apparently skipped the second day of the convention.
You could chalk this up to varying tiers of celebrity and the availability that come with them — those who guest-starred as one-off or swiftly whacked characters were out in force — though it also spoke to the familial camaraderie that the lesser-known remembered and wanted to celebrate. The Sopranos was a production that brought in plenty of inexperienced and unconventional performers, as though creator David Chase preferred authenticity to polished dramatists. Vincent Curatola, who portrayed the vindictive and calculating New York underboss John Sacrimoni, or Johnny Sack, related that many of them had been underemployed before lucking into the gig of a lifetime, as well as a powerful group bond that now inspired them to congregate and reminisce about a magical time.
It occurred to me that just as The Sopranos had elevated its many unforgettable wise guys and gals, professionally speaking, their performances, and the operatic tale they wove, put New Jersey and Italian-Americans on the map in ways that neither quite had been. A lovely running gag of the show is the 2000-era mafia’s reverence for old mob movies like The Godfather, which are highly quotable but bear little relevance to their actual criminal enterprise; The Sopranos challenges the glamor in the previous masterpieces of the genre with a specific grubbiness and tackiness that only Jersey can provide, and it clearly argues that Tony’s sentimentality is both hollow and a weakness as far as his work is concerned.
If many at SopranosCon were decked out in “Italian Pride” gear, it’s likely not out of admiration for the petty, murderous and all-around sociopathic quality of the Sopranos crew, and rather an acknowledgement of why someone like Tony would see no alternative to that kind of life. In the pilot episode, he speaks of feeling like he arrived “at the end,” as in: the vanishing of the organized crime model that allowed his immigrant forebears to stake their claim in a hostile America. His depression and anxiety represent the pain of serving as a transitory figure, someone neither here nor there, inheritor of a blood-soaked legacy and the father of a family that wants to be cleaved away from that — a wife wracked with guilt, a daughter who goes to Columbia and a son too weak for violence.
New Jersey was the perfect landscape for that psychodrama, since it confers the in-betweenness that plagues Tony as he negotiates threats from the FBI, New York and within his nuclear and chosen families. Whereas Jersey had long been a basic though undefined punchline, a space other people couldn’t really imagine and thought of as some liminal nowhere that filled a gap without having any aspect of its own — a highway, in other words — The Sopranos took its strangeness and mystery seriously, turning that purgatorial theme into a skeleton key for the entire narrative.
At the center of it, Tony knew the streets and parking lots, the pay phones and the docks, like he knew Carmela’s baked ziti. Unlike me, he was never lost, and he sure didn’t need a smartphone to get anywhere. I can’t fast-forward the opening credits of The Sopranos, no matter how often I’ve watched them, for the simple reason that I have just as often taken the drive that Tony does: through the Lincoln Tunnel, down the Turnpike, into the heart of suburbia. Nothing else in art has so dependably transported me to the environment that made me, that I cannot ever leave.
When I got home from SopranosCon (after traveling down the Turnpike, of course), I told my parents how odd it was that I couldn’t memorize these routes I’d taken all my life — how a great pleasure of the series is that while Tony is mentally, spiritually adrift, he can tell anyone, anywhere, with total confidence, “I’ll be there in 20 minutes,” since he understands his surroundings so well. My dad had an apropos reply: “The roads around here are spaghetti,” he said, a chaotic attempt at imposing order on a pattern of life that wasn’t designed with the future in mind. That, too, is the philosophical bent of The Sopranos: the inability of the past to meet the present.
I can’t guess if the average person at SopranosCon had such concerns in mind; listening to Dominic Chianese sing Italian ballads and sitting in a replica of Dr. Melfi’s office are attractions in and of themselves. I can say, however, that I finally grasp something of the delight others take in fan conferences. Whether it’s The Sopranos or Star Trek, people yearn to step into an alternate reality where they are seen and appreciated.
You wouldn’t really want to live in fear of hits and rats and wiretaps. And yet these characters are a family, a fractious, dysfunctional bunch that may help you process yours, and the therapeutic arc of the show ought not to be undersold as an avenue to genuine introspection. I won’t pretend that my obsessive relationship to The Sopranos is either unique or universal, because it’s also just fucking good, a funny, heart-wrenching, kaleidoscopic saga that yields little secret treasures with every viewing. What I would say all at SopranosCon had in common was a profound sense of ownership, and that was borne out in the minor calamity of most attendees opting to pay for VIP status. You could be from Jersey, or Italian-American, or you could identify on a completely abstract level, but the show belonged to you, it was for you, and so was this joyous festival. And when it was over, you carried that collective awareness out with you.
In fact, as I tried to drive away from the complex, I got predictably mixed up and struggled to reach an avenue of exit. I came to an intersection where a right turn would’ve shot me in the wrong direction, while an illegal left would’ve started me toward home. Well, what would Tony do?
I turned left.